Vancouver Canucks: Injuries force tough choices on defence

VANCOUVER, BC - APRIL 8: Troy Stecher
VANCOUVER, BC - APRIL 8: Troy Stecher /

The Vancouver Canucks are in rough shape as a weak back end finds itself afflicted with early season injuries.

As the Halloween season approaches, the only thing scarier than the Vancouver Canucks’ defence is the rumour that they might be considering trading some away for Matt Duchene. Defence is the organization’s weakest link under normal circumstances, and it has now lost two of its most reliable three defenders, Alex Edler (lower body, 4-6 weeks) and now Troy Stecher (lower body, 4-6 weeks).

Patching together a functional core of defenders in the absence of Edler and Stecher will not be easy given the Vancouver Canucks’ current personnel. Here is a look at the options available.

The Tan Man Stands Tall

With Edler out, Chris Tanev is the Canucks’ only established top-four defender. He rarely takes a night off and is arguably Vancouver’s most consistent and trustworthy players on defence. Paired with Edler, the two are a legitimate top pairing (though they would be the middle pairing on a better team) but with Edler out, Tanev role is to anchor a pairing with a weaker defender.

And Vancouver has plenty of those.

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The rest of the veteran presence is Erik Gudbranson and Michael Del Zotto, both of whom could be bottom-pairing defenders on another team but find themselves playing over 20 minutes a night for the Canucks right now.

Del Zotto has mostly held his own, but Gudbranson had been bad in nearly every category, unless you value running players from behind and getting suspended.

Youth Movement

As for the younger players, it’s more of a mixed bag.

By far the brightest spot in the Canucks’ future on defence is Troy Stecher. His sophomore season has picked up from his rookie year; he works hard every shift, has a lot of offensive skill, and is learning to be more responsible in his own zone. With his injury, that leaves Ben Hutton and Derrick Pouliot.

Pouliot has only played six games for the Canucks so far, so it may be a bit early to judge. He didn’t look great at first, but has shown signs of improvement over the past few games. Early on, he wasn’t moving the puck well and was often out of position.

But his underlying numbers weren’t bad, and it started to come together in Detroit, as he was finally connecting on some outlet passes and even notching an assist with a good breakout to Bo Horvat. He looked more comfortable in Minnesota and may be settling in.

The bigger question mark is Ben Hutton. Hutton is a likable kid, easy to cheer for, but Canucks fans are finding it harder and harder to do so. Now into his third season, he has made several egregious miscues, given up turnovers, and lost his coverage leading to goals against. He has often looked way out of his depth this season, and consistently looks to be thinking the game just a split second too slow.

Nevertheless, some of his underlying stats suggest that he hasn’t been as bad as the eye test suggests. Darryl Keeping’s careful statistical analysis of Canucks’ defenders (tracking d-zone exits) suggests that Hutton has been more reliable than it may have seemed. Like Pouliot, he seems to be trending the right way. Either way, he is going to need more help.

Who’s Next?

With both Hutton and Pouliot still finding their footing in the NHL, the Canucks still need to find at least one more defender to put out there. The options offer a stark contrast.

Head coach Travis Green could elect to bring in one or two experienced defenders with low ceilings and no particular place in the Canucks’ future. Alex Biega has proven that he can passably fill a hole in the roster, throw some entertaining hits, and have a reasonably minimal impact on the game, as he did in Minnesota.

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Patrick Wiercioch hasn’t played for the Canucks yet this season, but has 268 NHL games under his belt and can serve as a plug while Edler and Stecher recover from injury.

However, I don’t like these options. While both Biega and Wiercioch could help stave off utter disaster, neither has the potential to drive the play, and the best we can hope for from them is low-event hockey. Sometimes that works, if your goal is to win games; it has worked well on the recent road trip. But neither player figures into the long term rebuild for the Vancouver Canucks, and that is arguably the more important issue at hand.

Roll the Dice

Instead, I would like to see the Canucks take a risk with some of the younger defenders in the system. There are three options currently playing in Utica, and I would like to see one or two of these players get a shot. In the following order:

Philip Holm has earned it. He was one of the late cuts from the Canucks, and has been a standout on the Comets’ blue line. No one else there has played at the level he has; he looks poised and comfortable, has been defensively responsible, and is now putting up points. There is no reason not to give him a shot; unlike some of the other prospects, he is 25 years old and if he is going to make the jump to the NHL, it has to happen soon. Holm could earn a spot and relieve the pressure on Del Zotto and Gudbranson, a welcome relief indeed.

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Jordan Subban also has to be given an opportunity. He hasn’t been Utica’s best defender, but he hasn’t been its worst, and his play has improved as the season has settled in. The organization’s reluctance to give him a chance at the NHL level has been perplexing, given that he has a lot of offensive upside, and could bring some flare that the Canucks desperately need. His oldest brother is a big game player, who thrives off the adrenaline of the spotlight. It’s time to see whether Jordan has the same capacity to turn it up a notch.

Jalen Chatfield is third on this list for a reason. I haven’t been impressed with what I have seen from Chatfield in Utica. I have seen him out of position and scrambling too much, and while he has connected on some very nice breakout passes, I have also seen a lot of turnovers. That being said, others who have watched the Comets closely have praised him, and I certainly think he figures in the Canucks’ long term plans. So I wouldn’t complain too bitterly if he is given a chance, though I worry it might be too much for him right now.

The Point of the Point

The question is: what is the Vancouver Canucks’ plan? If the team wants to win games right now, then perhaps going with relatively safe options like Biega and Weircioch makes sense.

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But if the commitment is to the rebuild, then there is a case to be made for giving younger players a chance to step up and carve out a spot for themselves on the roster. Last year, the Canucks were forced to give Nikita Tryamkin a chance, and he made himself into a key piece of the team (and one the team could surely use right now). I would like to see whether Philip Holm or Jordan Subban could seize the moment in 2017.